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I’ve had the pleasure and honor of running my own consulting business over the last two years, assisting nonprofits of all shapes and sizes. Going forward, I’ll be focusing on one nonprofit: the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
I’ve accepted a full-time role as EFF’s Chief Program Officer, a newly-created executive level role that is intended to ensure that the programmatic teams at EFF, comprised of the legal team, activism team, technology projects team, international team, and press team, develop and achieve impactful strategies. The role helps me bring my passion for organizational development and management coaching into EFF, an organization I’ve loved for many years.
Previously, I led the activism team at EFF, which gave me a chance to spearhead communications and advocacy strategy as well as recruit and develop a team. Over the last two years, I’ve balanced my work leading the advocacy team at EFF with outside consulting projects that gave me an opportunity to go deep on organizational development. This came with some costs (like committing my vacation days to facilitating retreats and sacrificing my morning runs to morning conference calls with East Coast and European consulting clients), but also many rewards. I loved the advocacy work I was doing at EFF, and I also loved the organizational development work I was doing through Groundwork. I also noticed that my intention of Groundwork being a part-time project was hard to manage; I was tempted again and again to take on big consulting projects because I loved getting to work with progressive and tech advocacy groups I admired.
This year, I realized I needed to make some hard choices about which of my two passions I’d prioritize, as either EFF or Groundwork could happily balloon to fill up all my time. I spent many sleepless nights wondering how I could let go of either of them, when I found them both so meaningful.
The answer was a new opportunity that combines many elements of both my Groundwork role and my commitment to EFF’s mission. Over several months of discussion and consultations, EFF developed a new position to scale its leadership team to meet the challenges ahead. Adding the CPO role also frees up EFF’s Executive Director to focus on some of the pressing challenges facing the organization, including long term planning and deeper engagement with the media.
This is a bittersweet moment for me. The work I’ve done through Groundwork Consulting has been less public than my work at EFF, but deeply fulfilling. I’ve had clients across the country and enjoyed digging into the complex management challenges facing nonprofits of many different sizes. Through this work, I was exposed to an array of fascinating and complex management challenges, more than I would have ever experienced working within a single organization. I worked with incredible collaborators and I feel a deep and abiding connection to those individuals I coached through management and strategy challenges. I also had the privilege of only working with organizations I supported on a personal level.
To step into this new role at EFF, I realize I need to give up both of the positions that brought so much meaning to my life. The new role will come with its own host of challenges, and I need to be able to give it my full attention.
Over the next 30 days, I’ll be wrapping up the last of my outstanding commitments to Groundwork clients. I’ll be reaching out to those individuals who requested me for contracts in late 2018 and 2019 to let them know I’ll be unavailable. I’ll be transferring the leadership of the activism team for EFF to Elliot Harmon, a strategic and thoughtful individual previously working as the Associate Director of the activism team.
For now, my intention is to keep the Groundwork Consulting website up and functional as a place for me to blog about management challenges, and to continue to provide some coaching to existing clients. But I plan to indefinitely pause taking new clients. Once I’ve settled into my new role, I will reassess whether I’ve got the capacity to occasionally facilitate retreats, but I’m not taking any bookings now that aren’t already in my calendar.
I want to thank everyone who supported me in launching Groundwork, whether that was sending me clients or working with me on consulting projects or just reaching out to share support. I had always imagined that consulting was sort of lonely work, but instead I found it to be full of new connections and friendships.
It’s been a busy year for Groundwork, and I’m pleased to say I’m now booking many months out. I’m currently booking up 2018, and the first half of the year is already locked in. I will have one opening in October of 2018 and a second opening in January of 2019. Note that I strictly limit how many clients I take and tend to work with each group or individual for 2-12 months. While October 2018 may feel far away, it’s not!
I’m increasingly focusing on retreat facilitation and organizational audits, but also happy to talk through other management, leadership, and organizational challenges you may be having.
Interested in transforming your organization and leveling up your nonprofit management game by working together? Please reach out and we can start planning today. Even if I don’t have capacity to take you as a client, I’d be happy to hear about your challenges and refer you to someone else in the field.
What do your employees actually want out of their careers? What do they enjoy, excel at, aspire to, dream of? What skills are they lacking to actually achieve their long-term career goals, or do they even have career goals?
This article is designed to present a framework for considering career conversations, and offer a few ideas on techniques that can help you be supportive while talking honestly about an employee’s future career. As always, I’d love your feedback and suggestions, either over email or in the comments.
Why Bother Talking to Your Employees About Their Careers?
Having regular conversations about your team members’ career goals can have long-term, positive consequences for your relationships with your employees, employee retention, and job satisfaction.
Let’s start with the most basic, but perhaps least comfortable idea for many managers: your employees will probably leave you. Sooner or later, most of your employees will eventually find a different job. Some of them will move to a different role within the same organization, but many will leave your organization completely. A few will stick with you for years, and—rarely—others will stay for a lifetime.
And that’s OK. In fact, it’s totally expected. There are reasons to check in about career goals regardless of whether someone is going to be with you for one year or twenty.
For employees who will be transitioning in 0-5 years, career conversations can help you get the most out of the time you’ll have together. You can help them gain insight into their potential career opportunities, reflect back to them where you see their greatest potential, and offer them chances to improve the skills they’ll need as they head toward their ideal career. You’ll also benefit: employees that are gaining valuable experience and skills will have ample reason to stick around longer and, when they do decide to leave, it can be something discussed more openly and supportively, so you aren’t blindsided.
For longer term employees, career conversations can help ensure that they are regularly given new ways to sharpen and improve their skills, as well as transition in roles and responsibility in ways that make sense for both the employee and the organization. Together, you can craft a win-win situation, where they are gaining fulfillment from their careers over many years and the organization continues to benefit from their continued enthusiastic engagement.
Career conversations aren’t just for your strongest employees. Honest career conversations can help employees who are under-performing understand what opportunities are and aren’t available within your organization, and can help them learn what skills and insight they need to develop for the future, whether they stay at your organization or go elsewhere.
How to Frame a Career Conversation
I think good career conversations have three characteristics:
- Entered into without expectations. We are no longer living in an era where people climb a single career ladder within an organization. Many employees make lateral leaps in their career, or “step down” in order to maximize flexibility or satisfaction in their jobs. When setting up a conversation with an employee, let go of preconceived ideas about what “growth” must look like. It may not mean a new title, a bigger office, or more direct reports. Does your employee want to increase her interactions with the public? Does your employee want to pick up a new skill set that the organization needs and wants? Were certain projects especially fulfilling to her? Or maybe she’s serving as a caretaker for a relative and career “growth” right now means transitioning to work that allows her a flexible work schedule. Try to step into a career conversation without baggage about what career advancement looks like, and try to notice if you tend to think that “success” for someone else needs to mimic how you perceive success.
- Iterative. Some employees know exactly what they want their future to be and exactly how they want to get there. But for the rest of us, the future is a roiling mass of possibilities, uncertainties, and fears. The ideal future today may look wildly different from what it looked like two years ago. Career conversations can be iterative in a few ways. First, because your employee and you slowly gain more insight into what career path is truly the best match for her skills and passions. Second, because career paths can change. This can happen because of a serious life event—such as a health scare or change in family situation—or just because time and experience has impacted an employee’s goals and job satisfaction. It’s totally normal for someone to feel different about their career at 30 than they do at 55. Rather than lock an employee into a single path for “success,” offer flexibility for the career plan to change over months and years. Don’t be surprised if it evolves in ways neither of you were expecting.
- Collaborative. You and your employee aren’t trying to simply come up with the best career path for her as an individual. Rather, you’re trying to find that perfect mix of what she wants to do, what the organization needs, and what she is good at. She may have more insight into the first, but as a manager you’ll have a lot of insight into the second and third. Reflect honestly where you see her skills and what brings the most value to the organization. As you continue to develop your relationship, search for ways that you can construct win-win scenarios, where your employee taps into her passion and skillset in a way that benefits the organization. Be willing to be active and engaged in helping show the employee ways she can contribute to the organization’s success.
Practical Career Conversations
Ready to actually try a career conversation? The first step is letting your employee know you’re up for it. Many people make the annual review process a place to check in on career development. I think there’s no harm in that as long as both you and your employee know that’s the plan. You might also decide you want to carve out time during your one-to-one meetings, or set up a dedicated meeting just to talk about career growth. Regardless of how or where you structure it, I’d suggest you tell your employee it’s coming.
When you’re scheduling the conversation, you might say something like, “I’d love to set up a time to talk about your career more generally. I know we can get stuck in focusing on day-to-day tasks, but I’d like to step back and talk about the future of your career. How about two weeks from now?”
That may feel very stilted to you, or not the kind of language you normally use with your team. Adapt the language to find something that does work. The key factors are that you signal that this will be a conversation at which you talk about their careers specifically and that you schedule it a little bit out. That ensures your employees have time to think about it, and hopefully they’ll be able to step back from their day-to-day work and think more generally about their career as a whole.
Once it’s been scheduled, I’d suggest that you as the manager take the lead in the conversation. I suggest you let them know why you’re having the conversation and what outcomes you are hoping to achieve.
Examples for why you’re having the conversation:
- “I want to talk about your long term career goals so we can make sure you’re developing the skills you need over the next few years to achieve those goals.”
- “I realize we’re always heads-down focused on the task at hand. I want to talk about your career more generally so that we can make sure you’re heading down a path that you find fulfilling that also helps the organization.”
- “I really value you as an employee, and I want to make sure you’re fulfilled. I want to hear if you have thoughts about your career over the next few years, and talk about where I see you shine, so that we can keep an eye toward the future.”
What outcomes you expect:
- “I don’t expect to figure everything out today. But I want you to know that I’m open to these conversations. I value your work, and I want you to start thinking about where you’d like your career to head.”
- “This isn’t going to be a conversation where you come up with a finalized plan and present it and then I say yes or no. I want to collaborate on this, and give you a chance to think things through openly. Maybe you have a firm idea of where you’d like to be in 10 years, maybe not. Either way, I want to be able to start talking about it.”
- “I know that people define success in many different ways, and I don’t want to presume what career growth looks like for you. I want to hear what matters most to you in your career.”
- “By the end of this conversation, I’d like a better understanding of what work you find most fulfilling. And I’d like you to know where I am seeing a lot of potential for your growth.”
During the conversation, you can ask guiding questions to try to solicit information from the employee on what she finds most fulfilling and engaging, as well as offer your reflections on where you see the greatest potential for growth. Some guiding questions could be:
- What projects did you most enjoy in the last year or two? Why?
- You took on a new set of responsibilities with X project. Is that something you’d like to do more of in the coming years?
- Are you enjoying collaborative work or have you been enjoying the solo projects?
- What aspects of your work are you finding especially uninspiring? Why?
- Have you seen other folks with career paths you find especially inspiring? What factors do you notice in those?
- What are you looking for in your career?
- What would you hope to change about your career in the coming years?
- What skills do you want to develop in the coming years?
I also think it’s important that you reflect back to the employee the skills and experiences that are most beneficial to the organization. You might say things like:
- I’ve been extremely impressed by X, and I was wondering if you had interest in doing more of that.
- Your experience in X is a fantastic asset to the organization.
- I appreciate X in your work.
- You are very skilled at X.
When Passion and Skills Don’t Align
If you have enough of these conversations, you’ll notice that what an employee most wants to do doesn’t always align with what the organization needs or even with what she’s good at.
At a recent retreat, I heard other nonprofit leaders discussing the problem of “the firefighter who wants to be a ballerina.” I think of this as a metaphor for the nonprofit employee who is skilled at what she does now and fulfills a vital need for the organization, but her career goals are pointed at something else. Maybe she’s great at handling a crisis and keeping the organization afloat during even the most difficult of times, but during a career conversation she confesses that she wants to step away from the fray and focus on long-term projects. Or perhaps she’s part of your support team, but longs to move into programmatic work. Unfortunately, this firefighter has no experience being a ballerina. Even if you could shift her to a different role, the learning curve would be painfully high, and you’d have to replace her with someone who is less talented at firefighting.
Some people avoid having career conversations because they’re afraid this exact situation will arise, and their best people will ask to shift to roles where they aren’t qualified and aren’t helpful to the organization.
If you find yourself in this situation, know that you aren’t alone. Many managers have been where you are. Here are a few concepts you might consider if you find yourself in this spot. First, consider whether you can appreciate that at least this conversation is happening openly and with trust, instead of having your best firefighters secretly applying to ballerina roles at other organizations after hours. Second, if someone is expressing frustration with their current firefighter role, are there changes that can be made to make them feel more fulfilled in it? Third, are there small aspects of the ballerina role that could be integrated into her current firefighter work, so that she can continue firefighting most of the time but spend a percentage of her work on the ballerina tasks? (Though be careful about this one: you don’t want to end up with someone who works 20% more to try to add in extra ballerina hours while still holding down a full-time firefighter job!)
Fourth, remember that career goals change. Someone coming to you with dreams of being a ballerina today might find they’re less interested in that work in six months or two years, especially if they had a chance to dip a toe into it and found the waters less glamorous than they expected. So even if your very best people are in the firefighter/ballerina dilemma, remember to take a few deep breaths, be a little flexible, and give it some time. Maybe they’ll eventually leave you to pursue that ballerina life full time, but there’s a good chance that if they feel supported, heard, and appreciated and can integrate a touch of ballerina in their current roles, they may remember what drew them to firefighting in the first place.
Finally, remember that the worst case isn’t that bad. If your very best firefighters are hell-bent on becoming ballerinas, and they are terrible ballerinas, and your organization doesn’t need ballerinas, it’s actually OK. You can still acknowledge their interests and your limitations clearly and empathetically. That acknowledgement might sound something like: “I hear you’d like to work on more long term projects, which you have less experience with. Right now, you are doing fantastic work on the quick-response projects, and I want to keep you there for as long as you’re willing. I’m not sure that there’s ever going to be a full time role for you in the long-term project department. But I’m glad we’ve started discussing it. I’ll keep my eyes open over the next year for opportunities to help you build those skills while keeping you in your current department. I’d like you to think about it more, and let’s keep this discussion going. I’d like you to find fulfillment in your career, even if that might mean you go to another organization one day.”
Your firefighters may not want to hear that, but at least they’ll know where they stand. Even better, you’ll have created a relationship built on honesty.
Uncertainty is Fine
If you start chatting with your employees about their careers, don’t be surprised if a few of them are a bit mystified at the idea of a career trajectory. You may find the conversation stilted, uncertain, or even a bit suspicious. Such a conversation can also be successful. You’ll still have an opportunity to flag your investment in your employee as well as talk to her about what skills she’s bringing to the organization. Knowing that your employee is uncertain about her career goals is also useful for you; it can prevent you from making unnecessary assumptions about where she’d like her career to head.
Try to take the pressure off and acknowledge that uncertainty is fine. You might try starting smaller: what are a few tasks or projects she enjoys? What skills does she want to develop? It doesn’t necessarily have to lead anywhere right away.
Don’t Drop the Conversation
If you’ve had an initial conversation with an employee and established a good dialogue, then try to keep it going. Schedule a time later in the year to discuss it more. Look for key take aways from your early career conversations. Were there skills your employees hoped to develop? Projects that would give them valuable experiences? Remember to keep that career discussion in the back of your mind and remember it when you prioritize projects, responsibilities and opportunities. When you schedule your next check in, talk about those choices.
Want to discuss this more? I’d love to hear about your career conversations. Please shoot me an email and let’s start a discussion.
Last October, I offered up a bundle of my ideas, dreams, and experiences, granted it a name and a business bank account, and launched it onto the World Wide Web: Groundwork Consulting. Groundwork was a way I could formalizing and publicize work I’d been doing for years on the side: working with friends and acquaintances in the nonprofit world to tackle management challenges and think through new opportunities.
Six months later, I realize I’ve been learning a ton about nonprofit management consulting without a lot of chance to reflect on it all. So, here’s a listicle of lessons to commemorate the journey so far:
- You can’t change other people. You can only support them in changing themselves. I think this is a lesson I will be blessed to learn again and again in my consulting work. As a management consultant, I can’t make someone change. When talking to a client who has slipped back into a bad pattern, I sometimes wish more than anything that I could just do the work for them. But that’s doesn’t actually help anyone. Only the client can ultimately do the work. My job is just to be a coach, a collaborator, a sounding board, a guide, and a cheerleader in their process. The process can be slow and stumbling at times, but it’s their journey and I need to be present to support it.
- My job is to see the best version of my clients. The more I do this work, the more convinced I become that my ultimate work is to believe in the best version of someone else, and reflect that vision back. No matter how down a client may feel on where they are in adopting changes, my job is to keep strong in the belief that they can and will reach their ultimate potential. The world is full of doubters and nay-sayers. But through my consulting work, I get to always believe in the best in others.
- Nonprofits are systems whose problems must be viewed holistically. Sometimes a client wants me to help address one small piece of the organization. But no sooner do we begin than all the connected problems and concerns start rearing up, demanding attention. Fixing any one problem requires stepping back and looking at the whole picture.
- Changes have to be made one tiny bite at a time. Success helps clients feel optimistic and engaged, and helps them believe in the process. But if they bite off too much, they’re destined to trip up. So my job is to make it easy by drilling down to a single, achievable thing that we can change right now, and then moving on to the next step only once the first change has been mastered.
- Relationship problems are the root of many organizational problems. Sometimes nonprofits come to me wanting solutions to what they see as huge organizational problems around structure and strategy. And while it can be useful to get aligned on structure and strategy (and I love hosting those conversations), many of the day-to-day issues boil down to relationship issues. These look like communication problems, unresolved jealousies, hurt feelings, and broken trust. Fixing the relationships makes all the other problems easier to address.
- I need to practice what I preach. Even as I have advocated for other people to believe in themselves, practice self-empathy, repair relationships, and adopt big changes by splitting them up into manageable bites, I see countless ways I fall short in these respects. As I look at the next six months, I’m recommitting to holding myself to the same ideals I hold my clients, including making sure that I’m not letting the work run my life.
I’ve had a lot of other moments of insight along the way, but not all of those lessons fit neatly into a list like this. So I’ll leave it there for now. And if you’re interested in my nonprofit consulting services or just want to brainstorm about management challenges you’ve been facing lately, drop me a note and let’s chat.
I’m pleased to announce that I’m opening up a waitlist for future clients.
For background: I strictly limit how many clients I see at any one time. This ensures I can continue to be fully present for the organizations that I have already committed to—the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Freedom of the Press Foundation—and to my existing clients. In order to balance all of these things and still have time for a family, I’ve chosen to take on no more than 3 clients at a time.
I’m thrilled to say that I’m at capacity right now, and will be for several more months. I expect to have availability to take on additional clients in June or July of 2017.
f you’re interested in coaching, please fill out my contact form and let me know what you’re looking for, and I’ll add you to the summer waitlist. I’d urge you to get in touch with me sooner rather than later, as the waiting list may fill up.
As always, I offer a sliding scale to ensure that those who need it most can afford coaching. It is also my intention to continue to have pro bono clients regularly, so that I can be of service. So if price is a barrier, please know that I’ll try to work with you.
The principle behind Groundwork is simple: nonprofit leaders and managers should have the support and guidance they need to excel at their jobs. Too often, nonprofit leaders are juggling five jobs, working with few resources, and are choosing their job over their own health. They may not have the support system they need to make difficult and even unpopular decisions, resolve conflicts in the workplace with compassion, and create the kind of worklife that is fulfilling, sustainable, and truly impactful. Groundwork provides individualized, custom coaching so that you can de-stress, improve productivity for yourself and your team, take your organization to the next level, tackle the challenges ahead, and love your job.
If you’re looking for a management or leadership coach but don’t want to wait till the summer, please let me know. Over the last few months, I’ve developed a network of nonprofit coaches with similar guiding principles. It would be my pleasure to find out what you need and then connect you to one of them.
Ready to take the next step? Contact me to get on my summer waitlist.
It’s a new year, which brings a new opportunity to create the life you’ve been longing for.
It’s a chance to give deep reflection to where you’re trying to head in your life, and maybe start committing to taking a few steps to get there.
On this blog, we tend to discuss career goals and organizational health. But this time of year is also great for thinking through goals and hopes for your whole life—work, personal, physical, mental, etc.
Lots of people like to make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you call yours an intention instead of a resolution.
But New Year’s resolutions can be a bit unyielding. If your life and circumstances change, making the possibility of achieving a resolution unlikely, it can be demoralizing. It might feel like failure. And if life opportunities and circumstances change, you want to make sure you aren’t locked into a resolution that doesn’t make sense for your path anymore.
This year, I’m avoiding a full-blown New Year’s resolution in lieu of an exercise I hope will be more forgiving, insightful, and meaningful: a New Year’s thank you letter.
Want to try it? It’s simple.
First, take a few minutes to imagine where you’d like to be headed in your life. Imagine it’s a year or two down the road, and things are really going well for you. How do you spend your days? How do you feel? What have you invested more of your energy in? What have you given up or turned away from? How are your relationships? How is your health, your savings, your career? Sit and picture this for a few minutes, and imagine you are really there, in that better place.
Often, we have a sense of what we want our future life to be, even if that’s just because we know what parts of our lives are causing friction right now. Feel free to really step into the role for a while.
You may find yourself holding back, thinking: That’s unrealistic. I won’t get there in a year, or even more. Try to set those internal fears aside and just imagine, at least for a bit, that your life really can be where you want it to go.
Now, start writing the letter. It’s a letter that future you is writing to current you. And you are thanking yourself for taking the steps you need to take to get to that better place.
Future You might have a lot to say—reassurances that the difficult times will get better, acknowledgement of the hard work and sacrifice that will be necessary. The journey ahead might take some courage, some persistence. But remember to write the letter from a state of deep fulfillment, knowing that you have gone through the hard times and on to the better part of your life. Write as if everything worked out for the best.
It can be useful to describe the life Future You is enjoying. Talk about relationships, career, joys, current challenges, and how things have changed with time.
But remember that this is ultimately a thank you letter. Thank yourself for the work you did. Try to tap into that gratitude.
Then give whatever salutation seems most appropriate and sign it “Your future self.”
That’s it. Be open to whatever you notice in the process. And then close it up and keep the letter nearby and reread it whenever the time feels right. It can serve as a reminder for where you are going and why you want to get there.